Rachel Jendrzejewski writes plays, but she is just as likely to be found in an art gallery as in a theater. A current McKnight Fellow in playwriting, Jendrzejewski often collaborates with visual artists, choreographers, and other art-makers to create her pieces and push the boundaries of what a play can be. We spoke at a cafe in Minneapolis.
How did you come to playwriting?
Like many people, I was an actor first. I grew up in rural Indiana and I didn't know that people were writing new plays until I got to college. It just wasn't something that was ever introduced. After college, I was working for Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles and they develop all new work, so I was seeing that process happen again and again and that's where I started getting curious about it. I had an amazing, serendipitous thing happen where I met the director of Padua Playwrights and they were starting up a writing workshop in the building where I lived. I ended up bartering to open up the space and do the administrative side of it in order to take the workshop, and that was what launched me. It felt very, ooh, some stars just aligned.
What brought you to the Twin Cities?
I've been very geographically all over the place. I grew up in Indiana, then went to school in upstate New York and took a year off and traveled around, and then I lived in Los Angeles for six years, then I went to Poland, and then I went to Providence, Rhode Island for grad school. I got the Jerome in 2011, kind of straight out of grad school and I stayed because it's a great place to be.
Why did you stay? There have been a couple of Jeromes who've been “trapped.” How did we trap you?
I didn't plan on it. I kept thinking I would be going back to Los Angeles, and then I kept staying away another year at a time. There kept being opportunities. Coming out of my Jerome year, one of my plays got produced by Red Eye Theater, so I stayed for that production. At that point, I had gotten involved in a collaboration with SuperGroup, we made two major projects together over three years, so that kept me here a few more years. And by that point I was kind of steeped in. It's been this one-thing-after-another, cascade of opportunities.
What's your favorite part of the writing process?
I love the really early mushy research phase. I love going down rabbit holes and free-writing and kind of pushing material around without knowing where it's going. And I work that way a lot. I don't often know what I'm going to write. I don't outline and write into an outline, I do a lot of chiseling and uncovering what the thing is. I like being in that state of discovery. But I also love when I'm at the point where I'm working with other artists. I love getting to that place when it's getting to something larger than I could make by myself. It's bigger than me. That's a really exciting, and scary, but mostly exciting process.
Is there any part that you dread?
There's always at least one period of “Am I ever going to figure out what this is? Is it ever going to get past this draft, is it ever going to find its legs?” I always know it's coming, and I always know I'll push through it, but I always know when I'm there, and it's like auggghhh, this is so hard, writing is so hard.
I also dread, but also love, the first time it's in front of an audience. It's terrifying, but it's so good too. The first time I had a full play up in front of an audience, I threw up in the bathroom afterwards. It was exciting! It went well! It was all good, but it was so much built up nervousness and anxiety.
Are you more nervous to perform, or to see work that you wrote?
They're different kinds of nervousness. In a lot of ways, I feel more comfortable as a writer. I've always been an introvert and performing was always this thing that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I liked to do it for that reason, but it made me really nervous. It still does. But writing, it's a whole different kind of nervousness. When you're performing, your mind is occupied when it's time to go. As a writer, it's go-time and you have no job. You just sit there and watch it unfold and have no control over anything. So that's scary. But I like the exhilaration of both things, even the anxiety of both things. It's all wrapped up in what's so wondrous about it.
You used the verb chiseling earlier when talking about your process. Do you have a favorite metaphor you use when talking about making a play?
My parents are both visual artists, so that's the vocabulary I grew up with, and I still think of it a lot when I think about writing. My mom works with oil paints, she makes photo-realistic portraits sometimes, but she's not thinking about making it look real, she's thinking about what the paint can do, thinking about texture, thinking about color, that sort of thing. She also makes totally abstract collages And my dad is a sculptor, who also works in other mediums, including paint. So I think from a young age, I internalized the idea of making a mark and seeing where it leads, or finding the statue in the chunk of marble. But I also find myself using “giving birth” often. I myself have never given birth, but I think about the simultaneous agony and joy with the writing process, because it's hard. I find it hard, but also amazing. It's like these extremes in this one process and it results in this thing that is out of my control.
You've had a lot of positive relationships with theater companies. What is the best thing that a theater can do for a playwright?
What I've loved about working here with the Playwrights' Center, which is not technically a theater company, but they're so committed to letting you explore the process that you need to explore and recognize that it will look different from writer to writer. So, instead of this one-size-fits-all model of development to production, they're really receptive to how you might need to work and recognize that it might be different from play to play. I think that's really key. And straight up money is so needed and it's no small thing. To actually be able to put food on your table from your work is one of the most exciting gifts that a theater can offer. It seems so boring and straightforward, but it's real.
Is there anything that a theater should keep in mind when approaching a new script?
Well, I'm an “experimental” playwright.
What does that mean?
For me that means that I'm actively trying to wrestle with what language can do or what an image in performance can do. I'm trying to illuminate something that makes me and hopefully other people think differently or perceive our world differently or challenge our comfortable assumptions.
It's funny, right now I'm trying to write a piece for the Playwrights' Center about carving out your own path as an experimental playwright because my work doesn't fit into a lot of the traditional structures of the regional theater path or the commercial theater path. I've had literary managers say, is this a play or does it want to be an installation in a gallery? And I'm like, it could be, but I sent it to you as a play, and I'm interested in what it does as a play. In most artistic disciplines, innovation of the form is a priority and an ongoing, never ending task. And that's something I'm really interested in for theater is what is the future of the form as we keep changing and evolving as humans.
Well, what do you think the future of the form is?
I don't know! If I knew, I'd be done with my work.
What would you like it to be?
It's a hard question to answer. I like work that's exercising our capacity to imagine, or exercising our ability to think critically or to think divergently. Things that challenge us to grow as humans, right? So I hope the future of the form is that. I think it's already that on one level, but different kinds of plays will do different things. But I hope that stays as a priority, or grows as a priority even in the scope of the field.
Is there anything that you think the Twin Cities Theater community could be doing differently to support local writers?
It's so interesting here, because it's a haven for writers on one level, with the Playwrights' Center and many of the theaters that support new work are doing amazing things to support writers. There's more financial support here than like anywhere in the country, which is phenomenal. A lot of my work has been produced locally outside the context of theaters. I've done a lot of work in the dance community, which is where I see a lot of experimental performance work happening. I guess maybe I'd love to see more cross-pollination with the theater community and the world of dance or music where all this interesting contemporary performance is happening. They talk to each other some, but not nearly as much as I expected when I started getting involved more in the dance community. That's useful to some writers, and maybe less interesting to other writers. But for writers like me, I would love to see more of that.
I know a lot of writers have struggled to get work produced here. This is a great place to develop work, but if they want to see it produced, if they want to make a living from production-related income, that's going to come from out of state in a lot of cases. Or in my case, from other institutions that are not necessarily theater institutions. I don't know what the answer to that is, because there are only so many slots in a season, and I wouldn't want to see it become only local writers, because I think the cross-pollination across geographic areas is also really important. I wouldn't want it to become super insular, but to have a nice healthy mix and more opportunities for local writers to see their work up on its feet.
We have so many good writers here. It's a development town, not necessarily a production town, and I am not sure why that is happening.
It might have something to do with the riskiness of new work, and a lot of the “new” work that gets done at theaters around town was tested somewhere else. So there's a little less scariness around that. But there is an audience here for new work that is so generous, to me it seems like this is a great place to test the new work, and then send it elsewhere also. It seems like we've got all the right conditions for that to happen here more, I'm not sure where the disconnect is. It feels like maybe there are more writers than there are companies. But is the answer more companies? That seems also fraught.
Why should companies do new work? We know all the reasons why it's hard, we know all the reasons why it doesn't get done, but what do they get when they do commit to doing something new?
You're part of a contemporary conversation. You're part of what people are thinking about here and now. And certainly old work can speak to those things on one level, but that's where formal evolution gets interesting to me. The way we're processing information, the way we're moving through the world, the places where our attention is placed or how we interact with our attention, that's constantly evolving right? In turn, I think art evolves to respond to that or express that. I'm interested in investigating what this contemporary moment is.
It's ironic in some ways, I'm finding myself saying that I work in language, because I'm really interested in working with language to get at what's beyond it. I use the form of communication that we use everyday to communicate ideas, but it's so limited, actually in what it can do. It's only a fraction of our experiences and I'm interested in wrestling with language and trying to break language to get at the experience of what's underneath it.
How would you describe your work?
I use the word “experimental” as shorthand. I don't mean that in terms of aesthetic, but I do mean that in terms of a process. It's shorthand, in the theater community anyway, it helps people understand that there's not necessarily a dramatic arc, there's not necessarily a recognizable narrative in the way we think about narrative. There aren't necessarily characters that are realistic. I do a lot of language experiments. I'm really interested in the interplay of the human body and music and the visual environment and these other elements of performance that are interacting with the language and how the language is bouncing off those things or responding to those things or in dialogue with those things. So that's why I end up doing a lot of collaborative work because I end up in this place in the writing process where I can't finish this sitting here in my room by myself. I need to see where this language interacts with other things. My work is very interdisciplinary in that sense. On the page, it's super incomplete. That's true for any play, it comes to life when it's finally with all these other things. Some plays are more complete as blueprints, I don't think of mine as a blueprint, it's more of a score or a prompt.
That blueprint thing has come up more than once. A lot of people use that as their play making metaphor because it's a technical document and an artistic document at the same time. You seem like you're more comfortable with outside influences bringing things in. It's less of a formal blueprint.
Part of that is, yeah, as a person moving through the world, I am less interested in being the authority on what this is, here are the rules, it has to be this way. I'm not so interested in having that kind of control. I'm more interested in what happens when we work less hierarchically and more horizontally and have to make some decisions together? And lose a little bit of control. And that's also terrifying. I've had moments of like, oh, not that choice, please! Maybe I have stronger opinions about this than I thought. But also I've been amazed at the things that came out of letting myself be surprised or challenged.
Do you have an example of that?
Working with SuperGroup, we just have a really good chemistry together. We had this sort of feedback loop going where I would be developing text and they would create movement in response, both to the text itself and to the structures in the text. And then I would respond with more text and we'd have this back and forth. For our second project together, we wanted to work with an installation artist and some musicians. So we brought in Liz Miller to create a large scale installation that would also serve as the environment for the piece, and we brought in the band Brute Heart to create a music score. We had no idea what any of them were going to make. We generated most of the piece kind of independently of knowing what the installation and music would be, we were having conversations along the way and communicating basic needs, like we need this much floor space to navigate, here's where the audience will be, here are some impulses about how music might intersect with the text. I never could have dreamed how that piece would add up until I saw it, and I absolutely loved both the process and what came out of it.
I could have been like, here's the world of this piece, I'm going to make it up. But to have someone who thinks the way Liz or Brute Heart thinks that is totally different from how I think on many levels, but kindred, with a kindred sensibility, that was exciting. Liz had all these hanging pieces and all these clips so we could clip pieces up or bring them down. I feel like we really only scratched the surface on what we could have done with it because we had limited time in the space. It definitely made me hungry for processes where you're in the room more from the beginning, because there's so much territory to explore.
You need to have more people to make theater, you might as well use all the minds in the room, it's really exciting.
Yes! When I was just acting, I was always disoriented by the fact that the costumes and the set and the lighting and the sound, all of that often didn't show up until the last week. I found that so stressful. I was like, it changes everything! My whole experience is different now! I need time to get used to that. And as a writer, I kind of feel that way too. It does change everything, or it could, it can.